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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

THE MEDITERRANEAN ABYSS / Intermundia (2015)

Ana Dana Beros_Intermundia-4Excerpt of Intermundia (2014)

“The Mediterranean Abyss,” foreword to Intermundia exhibition catalog (2014). Exibition curated by Ana Dana Beros. Exhibition presented at the section Monditalia at the 2014 Venice Biennale

What comes back from the abyss? It is a rumor of several centuries. And, it is the song of the Ocean’s plains. Sonic shells rub themselves against skulls, bones and cannonball now turned green in the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. In this abyss, there are cemeteries of the slave ships. Rapacities, violated borders, banners fell and picked up from the Western world. And who constellates the thick mat of the sons of Africa from whom a commerce emerged, those are out of nomenclature, no one knows their amount.[1]

What Caribbean philosophers and poets Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau name “the abyss” (le gouffre) is the belly of the Atlantic Ocean, which swallowed two-million African bodies during the three-centuries of the slave trade. Whether dead from the unfathomably atrocious conditions of life on the slave ship,[2] or thrown alive and unchained to the sea in case of contagious disease, rebellion, or of a chase by another ship, these millions of bodies that never reached the Americas’ coast, populate a cemetery at the bottom of the ocean.

Another tragic cemetery now lies in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. However, the oceanic abyss is different from the continental one. Once again we turn to Édouard Glissant to think of the Mediterranean Sea as “a sea that concentrates,[3]” a sea around which empires have been built, transforming the tectonic fault into an imperial pond. Today, the sea continues to host a militarized territory: the Cyprus conflict, the war led by NATO on the Libyan coasts, and the Israeli blockade of Gaza are only the spectacular examples of this militarization. The sea also constitutes the hyper surveyed no-man’s land of the Southern border of Fortress Europe.

After more than a century of colonial hegemony whose imperial violence established an indelible relation between both ‘sides’ of the sea, Europe refused such a tie and found an ideal form of continental wall with the Mediterranean abyss. What constitutes a territory easy to monitor from the Northern coasts’ point of view, represents, on the contrary, a frightening last obstacle to cross after a dreadful journey for thousands of African migrants who can only turn to the clandestine and abusive channels of immigration, the official ones being closed by the administrative wall. The indifference with which we, Europeans, look at overpopulated dilapidated boats sinking not far from our coasts is symptomatic of our impossible empathy for the otherness.[4]

Following the research accomplished by Intermundia, we can say that the Mediterranean Abyss does not stand only for the cemetery of African bodies, but also for the transformational process that each migrant body undergoes through its crossing. When touching the European land, this body becomes an administrative rightless subject that can be legally detained for an undetermined duration. As Stjepan Žgela and Ana Dana Beroš show us in the following pages, the architecture of migrant detention center embodies the sordid means of detention of these rightless subjects.[5] Europe is populated by these particular prisons, which circumscribe a territory of exclusion within its own borders.

Lampedusa could be the antinomy of the abyss. Etymologically, it signifies a rock, emerging from the sea, an oasis in an aquatic desert, a haven located between Europe and Africa. The militarized history of Europe proves otherwise: in 1872, the eleven year-old Kingdom of Italy established a penitentiary colony on the island, during the Second World War, it hosted a military basis intensely bombed by the allies and, in the 1970s-1980s, the West part of the island was used for a NATO transmitter station. Today, the island is part of the enforcement of policies that recognize no rights to so-called “clandestine migrants.” Lampedusa thus embodies only the rigid and defensive characteristics of the rock, regardless of its potential haven properties. In this regard, it fully contributes to the Mediterranean Abyss for which Europe is responsible.

Let’s consider the map “Mediterranean Without Borders,” an artwork by Sabine Réthoré (2013). It consists in a map of the Mediterranean Sea and its coastal regions that was subjected to two simple operations: a 90-degree tilt that places the North on the right side of the document, and a withdrawal of all lines usually signifying national borders. This is how this map appears to us as simultaneously familiar and peculiar. Through it we recognize a space we know well but our perception of it evolves thanks to the way it is represented. The “Mediterranean Without Borders” represents territories that seem optically closer to each other than when considered on a geopolitical map. The sea almost appears as a calm lake, where people on one bank would not feel essentially different from their neighbors on the opposite one. We can no longer see three continents struggling to exist but, rather, the sea as gathering lands around it. The names of the cities are worth reading out loud. Their sounds reveal more regional identities blending into each other, than strictly differentiated national belongings.

This map is our manifesto against the Abyss: it changes our imaginary and recounts the Mediterranean profound relation that exists between the bodies living along its coasts. We should not misunderstand the nature of this relation as Édouard Glissant as defined it: it is not a candid wish for friendly rapports but, rather, the indelible mark of a common imaginary (including its past and current violence) shared by the nations involved. The Abyss and its imperial violence will not be forgotten but a creolity (créolité) can emerge beyond it, if we are ready to embrace the relation and its hybridation of identities.


[1] Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, L’intraitable beauté du monde, Paris : Galaade, 2009. (my translation)

[2] Cf : C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (Random House, 1989), and Édouard Glissant, Poetics of the Relation, trans. Betsy Wing, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

[3] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of the Relation, trans. Betsy Wing, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

[4] In addition to the work presented in this exhibition, we can refer to the chapter “The Left to Die Boat,” in Forensic Architecture, Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, Berlin: Sternberg, 2014.

[5] See also Tings Chak, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centers, Westmount QC : The Architecture Observer, 2014.